“Slight” of Hand: Reading With, and not For, “Race” in Children’s Books

Apologies to those of you who regularly follow my blog; it has been a busy time for me, and indeed, this will be my last blog for a while as I concentrate on other concerns and projects.  But I wanted to conclude this phase of my blog by looking at something I rarely consider in these pages: the “non-issue” book in British children’s literature about people of colour.  In the 2017 Reflecting Realities report, the executive summary highlights the fact that many children’s books with characters of colour are not only about Blackness (or Asianness, or being a minority ethnic member of society in general), they are about the problem of being an ethnic minority in society (national society or global society):

“The fiction titles were categorised according to a set of agreed sub-categories intended to define subject matter. ‘Contemporary Realism’ was a category defined as books set in modern day landscapes/ contexts; these amounted to 91 titles, which accounted for 56% of the fiction submissions. This category therefore featured the highest percentage of BAME character presence. Only 1 of the children’s fiction titles submitted could be classified as comedy, conversely 10% of submitted books featured Social Justice themes. Almost a third of submissions classified as containing social justice issues focused on themes of war and conflict. This very much corresponds with the societal context of recent years and is important to acknowledge, explore and mirror in literature. That said this does however raise some important questions. Do those from minority backgrounds only have a platform when their suffering is being explored? And how does such disproportionate variation of representation skew perspectives of minority groups?” Reflecting Realities 2017 Report from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/reflecting-realities-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-children).

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The 2013 Vintage Classic edition of Arthur Ransome’s 1936 Carnegie Medal-winning Pigeon Post. One of the reasons that the medal matters is that Carnegie winners tend to stay in print for decades.

This is also an issue that has come up with regard to the CILIP Carnegie medal; if a book is not about a Serious Issue, then recently it has rarely been considered for nomination, let alone the award.  Alison Brumwell, chair of this year’s judging panel, commented about the books on the longlist, “The forty books selected by judges offer intimate insights into family life, superb world-building and thoughtful, incisive explorations of complex themes and issues” (https://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press.php?release=pres_2019_longlists_announced.html). This award preference for complexity of themes and issues can be found across children’s books—authors such as Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series (the first of which appeared in 2014), rarely appear in nominations, despite wide success with readers, diversity in characters, and a “literary” style (by which I mean, endpaper maps and literary allusions and a twist in the traditional tale-type) that the Carnegie judges have tended to favour.  It was not always thus; in fact, the first winner, Pigeon Post (1936), was one of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series; Lucy Pearson describes it as “deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history” (https://carnegieproject.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/pigeon-post/) but certainly not an “issue” book in the same way that Sarah Crossan’s One (the 2016 Carnegie winner) or Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier (the 2015 Carnegie winner) are.  The emphasis on issue-based literature, mostly for older readers, and the preference for it from both publishers and award committees encourage authors of colour to write about “issues” in the hope of gaining literary success.

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Tanya Landman’s Carnegie-medal winner announces its Serious Issue on the front cover. Notably, the book is by a white author and set in America rather than Britain; to date no British author of colour has ever won the Carnegie.

Therefore, I want to focus the rest of this blog on two authors who have recently published books which might be considered “slight” by, not just award judges, but reviewers, teachers and librarians as well.  Malorie Blackman and Patrice Lawrence have both written “issue” books for older readers that the Carnegie medal process ignored anyway; Blackman’s 2001 Noughts and Crosses, often considered her most significant book; and Patrice Lawrence’s 2016 Orangeboy, which won the Waterstone’s prize, were not shortlisted.  Both of these books considered questions of racial identity and power structures, among other things.  But their recent books for the publisher Barrington Stoke are very different.  Blackman’s Ellie and the Cat (2019, illustrated by Matt Robertson, originally published in 1994 as Elaine, You’re a Brat by Orchard Books) concerns, according to the back cover list of themes, “Cats, Magic, Friendship”.  Lawrence’s Toad Attack! (2019, illustrated by Becka Moor) lists “Friendship, Toads, Tricks” as its themes.  These themes, combined with book covers that depict smiling children and animals drawn in cartoon-like fashion, indicate right away that these books are not going to deal with “serious” issues or be Carnegie-contenders.

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The plots of these books bear out the promise of the covers.  Ellie and the Cat is set in contemporary times, but it is a fairytale-like story with a wise woman (Ellie’s grandmother) who teaches “the rudest, most disagreeable child I have ever met” (12)—her granddaughter, Ellie—to behave through the use of a transformation, a quest, and the help of magical, talking animals.  Lawrence’s toads, on the other hand, do not talk, but they cause havoc for protagonists Leo and Rosa, who must discover both how to stop the hundreds of giant toads from destroying local gardens, and how to stop the destruction of the toads themselves by angry mobs.  Typical for Barrington Stoke books, these two are short (both resolve in under 75 pages), with relatively simple vocabulary and high readability.  The stories follow in the tradition of humorous, magical or hyperbolic books with mildly-delivered messages about good behavior or living in society, such as Gillian Cross’s Jason Banks and the Pumpkin of Doom (also Barrington Stoke, 2018) or even older stories by authors like Dorothy Edwards or Dick King-Smith.

The difference is that Blackman’s and Lawrence’s books have protagonists of colour.  Ellie and Leo are (at least partly—Leo has a white mother and grandfather) Black British heritage, and Rosa is British Asian.  But in many ways, that is the ONLY difference.  These books are not about “being” Black or Asian, and they certainly are not about the problem of being an ethnic minority.  It is not a new phenomenon to include British children of colour in stories such as these (Gillian Cross had a school series first published in the early 1980s that included Clipper, a Black British girl), but they have typically featured as parts of a gang, or sidekicks.  What Lawrence and Blackman do in these books is foreground the protagonists of colour, and the illustrators follow suit by keeping them prominent and central in the illustrations throughout.  Readers are not reading about the problem of being Black or Asian British, but they are reading about being Black or Asian British.  Lawrence and Blackman give readers the opportunity to see characters of colour in leading roles, part of humorous situations and allowed to problem-solve in a way that does not focus on identity.  These books may appear slight, but they perform an important role: they make being Black and Asian part of being British, in contrast with a publishing and awards industry that want to make them only Black British or only British Asian.  And this is a change, a sleight-of-hand if you will, which, over the long term, could have more impact than any individual medal-winning book.

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Three Kings of Puerto Rican Children’s Literature

Happy Three Kings Day! While most Americans celebrate Christmas as their major winter holiday, in Puerto Rico, where I was last week, Christmas extends from (as one person there told me) Thanksgiving night when they put up the tree to the San Sebastían Festival in Old San Juan during the third week in January.  One highlight is today, El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos.  Everywhere we went in Puerto Rico there were signs and statues and light displays marking today’s festival, which was at one time the traditional gift-giving day of the holiday season.

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One of several books available at Libreria Laberinto for Three Kings Day; as you can tell from the glare on the photo, it was wrapped in plastic like many of the children’s books and therefore could not be browsed through in the store.

Now, as always, influence from the mainland and larger powers have had an effect on how Puerto Ricans celebrate, and Christmas has gained prominence accordingly.  Outside influence is, of course, historically the norm for Caribbean islands.  And like the three kings who came from other lands to bring their gifts, exploring imperial powers have changed—and continue to change—all aspects of Puerto Rican life.  This includes children’s books. While I was pleased, especially after my forays to bookstores in former British colonial islands, to see a wide variety of specifically Puerto Rican children’s literature available, they were dominated by three elements: the history of the island, language issues, and the value (in all sorts of ways) placed on reading.

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The folktale section was dominated by Juan Bobo tales. This is only a small part of the wall of books by and about Puerto Rico for children available at the bookstore.

As with many attempts at creating a national children’s literature, a great deal of attention is paid to the history (both factual and folkloric) of the island in its children’s literature.  At Librería Laberinto, a well-stocked bookstore at the heart of Old San Juan, they had a whole wall of children’s books from and about Puerto Rico.  Many of these are folktales.  Prominent among the stories were Juan Bobo tales; Juan Bobo is an apparently foolish character in Puerto Rican folklore who yet often succeeds against ridiculous odds.  Like Brer Rabbit, Juan Bobo has been discussed as a trickster character who wins out over the greater power—in Brer Rabbit’s case, the tales are often seen as an allegory of slavery, and in Juan Bobo’s, an allegory of colonialism with the Puerto Rican succeeding over the Spanish colonizer. Sharing the shelves with the Juan Bobo tales were Taíno folktales, stories from the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the island.  The Taíno were almost entirely wiped out in Puerto Rico by Columbus and the Spanish, but today they have gained a revered status.  As Ivonne Figueroa has pointed out, “Much has been said of the Taínos lately, but it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the study of the Taínos took off” (http://www.elboricua.com/history.html).  This time period accords with both movements for Puerto Rican independence (from both the Spanish and the Americans) and with the international rise in the study of anthropology and folklore, which often manifested as a search for the noble primitive, an antidote to an increasingly industrialized world.  Renewed interest in folklore emphasizes this rejection of the globalized world of technology.

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European architectural styles and buildings dominate the counting book, Los Numeros en Ponce in Numbers.

But the power of colonialism is also present in Puerto Rican children’s books.  One of the books I brought back, Yvonne Sanavitis and Karen Dietrich’s Los Números en Ponce in Numbers (Plaza Mayor 2009) is a counting book that tells the history of the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico.  Most of the sights associated with the different numbers are connected to la Plaza de las Delicias, the main town square built by the early Spanish settlers in the 1670s, including the Fuente del Léon (Lion Fountain), City Hall, the fire station, and the Armstrong-Poventud house.  These buildings and monuments are all displayed in their European-style decoration, and a brief description of the Spanish colonizers who created them and held sway over them is given.  The Taínos, on the other hand, are not mentioned until the last number of the book.  The page describing 100 shows an isolated path of stones outside the center of the city.  The text reads, “Floods caused by a hurricane washed away layers of earth in the Tibes neighborhood of Ponce and revealed an indigenous Taíno ceremonial site.  Tibes excavations have provided important information about ceremonies, eating habits, ceramics and construction of homes of the indigenous population of Puerto Rico” (51).  It is difficult to see, looking at the illustration, how any of this information could have come from the pile of rocks; additionally, the book says nothing of the people living in the neighborhood at the time of the floods or what happened to them.  The focus is on the people with the power to shape history; the book opens with a quotation from educator Rafael Pont Flores stating, “Ponce no longer repeats its history, it makes it better” (5).

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The Tainos are only represented in Los Numeros en Ponce in Numbers by the number 100; the illustration shows an unreadable pile of rocks.

Los Números en Ponce in Numbers also highlights another trend I found in the children’s books in Librería Laberinto, a focus on language.  Many of the books available came in dual editions or dual languages, showing the tension between English and Spanish on the island.  Spanish is, of course, the native language of most Puerto Ricans, but—especially in tourist areas like San Juan and Ponce—English is increasingly necessary at all levels of the economy.  In 2012, the island instituted a pilot program to shift instruction in Puerto Rico’s schools from Spanish to English (https://www.caliricans.com/2012/08/english-to-replace-spanish-in-puerto-rico-schools/).  But it is a fraught issue that mirrors the tensions between the island and the mainland United States.

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This board book highlights words specific to Puerto Rican culture–perhaps it should be labeled trilingual instead of bilingual.

Perhaps the concerns about language come to a head in Palabras Boricuas/Puerto Rican Words (2016), a bilingual—or perhaps trilingual—board book by Hector E. Baez.  Right on the front cover, along with the title and the Puerto Rican flag, is the sentence, “No decimos Banana . . . decimos Guineo.”  Translated into English, this says, “We don’t say banana . . . we say banana.”  This epitomizes for me the struggles over language found in books specifically for Puerto Rican children.

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The Thiago series focuses on issues and concepts important to Puerto Ricans–but because publishing on an island is expensive, even short books like this are costly.

But how many children have access to these books is something I would be interested to know.  As I said, Librería Laberinto had an excellent selection of books, showing how much specifically Puerto Rican children’s literature is valued.  But these books were also incredibly expensive compared to their translated counterparts.  Most were produced by the educational arm of the University of Puerto Rico or the Instituto de Cultura Puertoriqueña.  Again, this shows that children’s literature is of cultural value, but the cost of publishing books on a small island means that most picture books are hard cover only (many of them in the bookstore were sealed in plastic, and therefore unbrowsable).  The books designed for beginning chapter book readers, such as the Thiago series by Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and published by EDP University of Puerto Rico, can cost ten dollars for a twenty-six page paperback book.  These prices mean that many children will only encounter books in libraries or schools, rather than being able to have shelves of books in their homes.  This is true in other places as well, of course.  But Puerto Rico’s past and present shape the audience for their specifically Puerto Rican children’s books—leaving the treasures of reading out of reach for many.

Yes, actually, they DO know it’s Christmas: Imperialism and the holidays

My least favorite Christmas songs involve people feeling sorry for other people.  There’s no better way to encourage smug self-satisfaction about your superior life than listening to songs where people buy shoes for little boys who have mothers with cancer.  At least the shoe song is about local, face-to-face charity.  The all-time most annoying Christmas song, in my opinion, is Bob Geldof’s 1984 “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, a world-wide smash hit and Christmas Number One in the UK.  I know that I am not supposed to hate this song, because all the profits went to help sick and starving children in Africa—not once, but three times (it was re-recorded in 2004 and 2014, both times as charity singles).  But this song embodies for me all that is wrong with formerly (?) imperial countries and the way that they understand the world.

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An image from Iceland’s banned Christmas advert–perhaps the orangutan isn’t starving enough?

First, there is the idea that white westerners must save the Africans.  This is problematic on two separate accounts.  One, it ignores the fact that white, western countries stripped African countries of people and resources for hundreds of years through colonialism, and continue to do so—just ask the UK supermarket chain Iceland, whose Christmas advert heralding their ban on palm oil, the harvesting of which destroys orangutan habitats, was banned for being “too political” (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/09/iceland-christmas-tv-ad-banned-political-greenpeace-orangutan).  Nowhere in Geldof’s song does it suggest that Britain might help Africa because Britain helped cause the problem in the first place.  Two, even if you quibble with the notion that European colonialism continues to affect African countries, the idea that Africans need pity (rather than, say, economic development, fair trading practices, or reparations) perpetuates a racial hierarchy that is often felt much closer to home in the UK or US.  Several children’s books written by people of colour detail the humiliation of being compared with “pitiable” Africans; Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s semi-autobiographical Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995), for example, includes a school lesson about the famine in Biafra (1967-1970).  After hearing from Sister Agnes tell the class that “We in the West are fortunate to have fertile land, enough food, water and wealth . . . We must help those who are less fortunate” (29), Hope watches the pictures of the Biafran famine with horror and shame.  “How could Grandpa be proud to be descended from Africans?” (29) she asks.  Then she realizes that the rest of her class associates the starving children with her, even though she is from Jamaica: “I was the only black girl in the class and everyone looked at me” (29).  Hope’s classmates learn the lesson that it is acceptable to be racist, as long as you are charitable while doing so.  As Bono famously sings in the Geldof song, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”

The linking of race and poverty (consciously or not) is the most egregious of problems with “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” but it is not the only one.  Simplistic attitudes toward “the world outside your window” range from the idea that “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” (it actually does snow in Ethiopia, although not in the plains); to the idea that all Africans would care if they knew it was Christmas (about a quarter of the population is Muslim, to say nothing of other non-Christian religions); to the idea that if people don’t have the consumer trappings of a Western-style Christmas, then they will not recognize the day as Christmas.  Rachel Isadora’s The Night Before Christmas (Putnam 2009) tries to counter some of the stereotypical attitudes toward Africa by resetting Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in Africa.  Her dreadlocked Santa visits a family in Africa, bringing snow in his wake and providing presents from his sack.  Isadora, who is white American, lived in Africa for ten years, and has redone a number of traditional European and American tales by placing them in African settings; and although I think they are designed more to counter those naïve stereotypes about people in Africa for white people than I think they are for Africans themselves, it is still nice to see a book with a Black Santa on the cover.

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There will be snow in Africa–and Santa Claus too.

I thought about imperialism and its continuing effects too when I saw the cover of Esmeralda Santiago’s A Doll for Navidades (Scholastic 2005), which shows two brown girls cuddling a white doll.  Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, and illustrator Enrique O. Sanchez, who is Dominican, did not accidentally depict a white, blonde, blue-eyed baby doll.  The story is based on an incident from Santiago’s own childhood, when she longed for a doll like her cousin had and specifically requested the blonde blue-eyed baby as a present.  This recalls Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s infamous 1950 “doll test” in which all children of any colour who were offered white dolls or black dolls chose the white dolls.  The experiment was used as evidence in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to demonstrate the effects of systemic racism on children’s self-image.  Two of my former students—one Puerto Rican and one Dominican, as it happens—are currently looking in to what it means to have “national” children’s literatures in places where the shadow of imperialism (economic, political and cultural) still affects people on a daily basis.  What is interesting to me about Santiago’s book is that, while she allowed the white baby doll to remain, and titled the book A Doll for Navidades (Christmas), the book itself focuses on the difference between an American concept of Christmas and the Puerto Rican traditions.

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Giving the readers what they expect? Santiago doesn’t get the doll, and she doesn’t get anything for Christmas, because gift-giving in her Puerto Rican childhood happened in January.

The main character does not ask Santa for the doll, nor does she get gifts at Christmas.  The family go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and eat traditional dishes on Christmas Day, but the gift-givers are the Three Kings, and the gift-receiving day is January 6th (their feast day).  Again, these are, I believe, deliberate choices.  Santiago, writing for an American audience, allows readers to think they are getting a story that mimics American stories of writing to Santa with demands—but then, without fuss, gives a story that introduces other customs.  Further, the main character does not get the doll because her family cannot afford it; but this is not a story of wretched poverty and reluctant self-sacrifice.  Her sister gets the doll, and—seeing the protagonist’s disappointment—asks her to be godmother to the doll.  The children had learned to desire the consumer object made in a white western mode, but tradition and familial love made Christmas (and Three Kings’ Day) a memorable feast.

Able to Participate: Disability and Race in British Children’s Books

This fall, when I participated in a daylong symposium at Amnesty International UK on children’s books and human rights, the author Alex Wheatle spoke about how he pitched a book to a children’s publisher about a Black British boy growing up in a care home; the publisher worried that there were too many issues to the book.  In other words, a kid can’t be in a care home AND Black AND in a children’s book.  Being Black, for many children’s publishers (even now) is “problem” enough.  The idea that not being white is a problem in British society is also likely to be one of the reasons that the CLPE Reflecting Realities report found that only one of the books with BAME representation could be classified as a “comedy”; if you are a problem, you, and your life, can’t be funny.  For years, it was seen as a generous, liberal white attitude to suggest—as one character does in Josephine Kamm’s 1962 Out of Step—that “there’s nothing wrong in being a West Indian or an African or an Indian.  They’re every bit as good as we are; they look different, that’s all there is to it” (20).  To argue that “there’s nothing wrong” with being yourself suggests that someone else thinks that there is.

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And yet—as the Amnesty symposium emphasized—children have the right to be represented in all aspects of society, including children’s books.  And that means all children, including those who are experiencing either a temporary or permanent disability.  The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has, as its fifth point, “The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf). Special education and care should not mean isolating the child and making them feel “othered”, but helping them find ways to participate in society.  British children’s literature has made great strides in the last few years in depicting disabilities in a broad spectrum of books, including the 2016 Carnegie Medal winner, One, by Sarah Crossan about conjoined twins.  But it is unusual to find a main character of colour in a British children’s book who is also disabled—too many “problems” for one book!

The issue is not just academic, or a fictional scenario.  Amelia Hill, writing for the Guardian, highlights the case of two disabled children that the Home Office is trying to deport to Pakistan despite the children being born in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/12/home-office-disabled-children-leave-country). Disabled children often suffer discrimination; disabled children of colour can experience a double discrimination due to racist attitudes that a person’s “race” is a problem.  And being a person of colour doesn’t necessarily mean you are more sensitive to the “problem” of disability–most people need to learn to look for ability and strength in disabled people rather than othering them.

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Brahmachari’s main character, Laila, thinks she understands her best friend Kez–but sometimes all she see is her disability and the way it interrupts their friendship.

It is therefore encouraging to see more books being published that include disabled (temporarily or permanently) characters in books with or by people of colour.  The disabled characters are not just window dressing, but play major roles in the books.  Sita Brahmachari’s character Kez, in Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) is Laila Levenson’s best friend, but that friendship is tested because of Kez’s disability.  She is in a wheelchair, and although she and Laila have been friends since primary school, Kez decides she won’t come over to Laila’s house any more when they start secondary school after Laila’s father carries her down the stairs.  “I never want to be carried” (58), Kez tells Laila.  Laila thinks of herself as being the only one who understands Kez, but has to learn to see her in new and capable ways, and also learn how to make accommodations for her friend without patronizing her, before they can be close again.  Kez is white British, but makes up part of Brahmachari’s multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-able cast of characters, because as she herself puts it, “These ‘different’ characters populate my books because I know that they’re all ‘here!’ and more than anything I love to give each of them their “rites of passage” moment when they find a voice” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/15/sita-brahmachari-diverse-characters-diverse-names).

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Depression is a disability that affects all kinds of people–but it’s not always a result of racism for people of colour.

Bali Rai’s Stay a Little Longer (Barrington Stoke 2018) deals with a different kind of disability, the emotional and mental disability of depression.  Rai distinguishes between forms and levels of severity of depression in his novel. Aman, the main character, is thirteen and grieving the death of her father. Although she considers herself “messed up” (69) for still grieving after a year, her friend Lola points out that “It’s not a competition to see who recovers the fastest” (69).  Aman’s grief affects her every day, but it is clear that she will return to her old self, more or less, eventually.  However, an older man that Aman meets, Gurnam, has a more serious form of depression that leads him to attempt suicide.  Aman, who has friends and family supporting her through her grief, wants to be supportive to Gurnam as well, but she has to learn to go about it in the right way.  She learns that love helps, but love alone is not enough; disabilities, even when they are not physical, require medical treatment.  Race plays an interesting role in Rai’s book; Gurnam is harassed by some local boys, but Aman cannot understand why because “The lads are Asian, just like Gurnam” (90).  She assumes that racism is the only reason a man would be harassed in Britain.  However, it turns out that racism has nothing to do with it.  Gurnam is gay, and the boys think that homosexuality is “Against nature” (58).  Rai’s book highlights the way that being “othered” can lead to disabling depression, but in doing so he also reminds readers that race is only one piece of a person’s identity—and not always the “problem.”

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Disability doesn’t mean un-ability; Laird’s character Musa has strengths his brother Omar wishes he had.

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere might reasonably be expected to deal with a similar emotional disability, as the novel concerns a Syrian family who become refugees in Jordan before eventually being given asylum in Britain.  Refugees and migrants have formed an ever-increasing part of children’s literature over the past decade, but generally the stories have concerned able-bodied characters; again, the idea that being a refugee is enough of a “problem” for a single book applies.  But Laird includes two disabled characters who play pivotal roles in the story: the main character Omar’s older brother, Musa, who has cerebral palsy, and their younger sister Nadia, who has a heart condition.  Musa’s cerebral palsy affects the plot—his movement is restricted, and at times Omar has to carry him.  But he is also a “total brainbox” (15) who gets involved in the rebellion and has to be saved from being shot by Omar.  Musa uses his disability to his advantage when soldiers approach them, “making babbling noises” (57) and flailing his arms “wildly” (57) to make the soldiers think he is harmless.  His condition and Nadia’s heart problems put them on top of the list for asylum in Britain.  It is only at the end of the novel that race/ethnicity come into play, however.  Musa does not want to leave for Britain, arguing, “You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims?  They think we’re all crazy terrorists” (315).  Laird concludes her story with questions that acknowledge that attitudes toward “others” are still a “problem” : “If you have read to the end of the story you might be wondering what will happen next . . . How will they get on in their new life in Britain?  Will people welcome them? . . . Will they be helped to settle in and follow their dreams?  The answer to those questions lies with you” (334).  At the end of the day, it is up to all of us to ensure that every person is able to participate in society, and stop closing doors because of what we perceive as their “otherness”.

Brown Bombers? What Readers Expect, and What Viewers Get

This week, the comics publisher Abrams withdrew plans to publish a graphic version of a short story by Jack Gantos, “A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library.”  The story was originally published in 2016 by Walker Books, in a collection entitled Here I Stand: Stories that Speak for Freedom.  The collection of short stories was edited by Amnesty International, in order to encourage readers to think about their human rights.  Nicky Parker, the education director for Amnesty International UK, wrote in an afterword to the collection, “This book is inspired by the fact that human rights can be denied or abused even in countries like the UK or the USA, and we need to defend them constantly.  Stories and poetry are a wonderful way of making us think, helping us understand the world and other people.  More than that, they can inspire our empathy—which we need if we’re to overcome prejudice” (Here I Stand 310).

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Abrams Publishing pulled the graphic novel version of this story after protestors objected to the illustrations.

I quote Parker at length because the original story written by Gantos did not, to my knowledge, raise the same kind of protest that the graphic version has done, and I think it’s important to understand why.  Gantos’s short story begins with the simple sentence, “He is a boy and he is bored” (100).  A reader will learn over the course of the eight-page story that the boy is young, and that he cannot read, and that he is part of some religious or faith-based group that believes that those who have different faiths should be destroyed.  He lives in a place that has libraries, and “place[s] of worship” (101) and markets.  We are not told what the boy looks like, other than that he is wearing a red jacket and he is “little” (103).  We are not told where the town is. The reader may make assumptions about the suicide bomber, but the textual evidence will not support a definitive racial, ethnic or national origin for the boy.  In fact, if anything, the author’s own note at the end of the story problematizes any assumptions that readers might have: Gantos indicates that the inspiration for his story was the French Enlightenment philosopher, Denis Diderot.  Diderot, who Gantos suggests, “wrote a good bit on religious fanaticism” (108) was concerned with white, European, Catholic fanaticism.  In his writings, Diderot discusses the logical inconsistencies within Christianity, and the ways that these inconsistencies are used to inflict pain on other humans.  Gantos’s note reminds the reader that his story could take place anywhere—“even in countries like the UK or the USA,” where indeed, white boys commit terrorist acts against schools, synagogues, and anti-racism protests with alarming frequency.  By failing to give the suicide bomber a definitive identity, Gantos gives readers the opportunity to question or consider their prejudices about who might be a suicide bomber and why.

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The unillustrated version of Gantos’s story originally appeared in this collection produced by Amnesty International.

Turning Gantos’s story into a graphic novel, however, removes the potential for the bomber to be an “every boy”.  Dave McKean, who illustrated for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, depicts the suicide bomber as a brown boy, and many assumed that he was not just brown, but Muslim (I have only seen the front cover of the graphic version, so don’t know whether other clues in the illustrations suggested the boy was Muslim).  A thousand people signed a letter to the publisher, written by the Asian Author Alliance, calling for the book to be scrapped, saying the book was “steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/26/a-suicide-bomber-sits-in-the-library-comic-pulled-protests-jack-gantos-dave-mckean).  In pulling the text, the publisher and the illustrator agreed that they had erred in creating a book that reinforced, rather than challenged stereotypes.

The discussion about Gantos’s story and the graphic novel version of it brought to mind another story for young readers about a terrorist which was eventually turned into a graphic novel: Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (2001). Like “Suicide Bomber,” Blackman’s story includes a conflicted young terrorist, but there are many differences that complicate Noughts and Crosses.  The terrorist in Blackman’s story is a racial terrorist, reacting to an unequal society rather than a difference in belief systems.  He carries out and succeeds in his terrorist act, and is eventually hanged for it.

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Novelist Malorie Blackman also wrote about a young terrorist involved in a bombing.

The terrorist in Blackman’s novel is also white.

Callum MacGregor, Noughts and Crosses’ male protagonist, is not the bomber in the story–it is actually his father and brother who plant the bomb–but he becomes a part of their terrorist organization.  Although he is white, he is not like those the media in the US and UK refuse to call terrorists (“lone wolf” is often the preferred term): the disaffected white males who attack their own peers in a school or movie theater, or drive cars into peaceful protests, or go on shooting rampages in synagogues or Jewish daycare centers.  He is a member of the oppressed in Noughts and Crosses, a novel set in an alternate universe where Black people are in charge and white people lack access to freedom and power.  Blackman’s novel deliberately makes the point that racism is about power, not innate inferiority/superiority.  By only referring to Callum’s whiteness from time to time in the novel, she also requires the reader to constantly revise assumptions about race.  I have taught this novel several times, and white students as well as Black have told me they had to keep reminding themselves that Callum was white.  Our assumptions about race, power and terrorism are that deeply engrained.  It is this constant revisioning that makes Blackman’s novel so effective.

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The graphic novel version does not force assumptions to be constantly questioned.

It is also, paradoxically, what makes the graphic novel version less successful.  Even though Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s 2015 graphic novel follows Blackman’s story and reproduces its reversed racial hierarchy, the reader no longer needs to repeatedly reconsider what a terrorist looks like, because the pictures show them.  But because Blackman’s novel is set in an alternate world rather than being a version of our contemporary one, the viewer of the graphic novel also can separate these two worlds.  They can think, “Callum is a white terrorist in Blackman’s book, but that is a different world from ours”.  The illustrator’s vision erases the need for the reader to revision.

Jack Gantos concludes his author’s note following “Suicide Bomber” with a quotation from Diderot: “But who shall be the master, the writer or the reader?” (108).  In the best situation, both are master, because the writer presents a range of possibilities and the reader is open to thinking about those possibilities.  The Barthesian failure of both of the graphic novels I discuss here is the closing off of these possibilities, forcing us to accept a world in which suicide bombers come in one color only.

Like a Norman Rockwell Painting: Freedom, Justice, and Children’s Literature

This week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that has always been about more than a harvest feast or festival.  Both in its root (and somewhat mythic) origins as a celebratory meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people at Plymouth Plantation, and in its nationalization as a federal holiday during the Civil War, Thanksgiving in the US is meant to encourage Americans to think about unity.  There are two main images Americans conjure up during this time of year.  The first is a picture of the “first Thanksgiving” showing happy pilgrim women carrying historically unlikely food and serving equally happy Wampanoag people.  It is an image which, in my own childhood, led to many a school “feast” of dry cornbread and koolaid consumed while wearing paper pilgrim “hats” or construction paper-feather headdresses.  (I’m told they don’t do this anymore, and yet a quick internet check shows several “teacher” websites touting the “fun” of wearing feather headdresses.  One even suggests adding gold sparkles, perhaps to recall the reason that Columbus and his men led a genocide of native Caribbeans.)

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Where’s my construction paper pilgrim hat? Charles Schulz’s version of the first Thanksgiving, with smiles all around and historical inaccuracies aplenty.

The other popular image of Thanksgiving, however, is more modern.  It comes from the painter Norman Rockwell, and was a part of a series that Rockwell did for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 based on a speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The speech, and the paintings, are called the “Four Freedoms” because they illustrate freedoms that Roosevelt hoped a post-war world would embrace: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  The “Thanksgiving” image is Rockwell’s depiction of Freedom from Want, set in his very white American Vermont town.

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This image captured white Americans dream of Thanksgiving unity during wartime.

In fact, all of Rockwell’s freedoms paintings depict white Americans, because these were his neighbors—but also, perhaps, because of where he published. According to a special exhibition on Google Arts and Culture produced in coordination with the Norman Rockwell Museum, “In an interview later in his life, Rockwell recalled having been directed to paint out a black person out of a group picture because ‘Saturday Evening Post’ policy at that time allowed showing black people only in service industry jobs” (https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/ogKyOs7llcWMIg). Rockwell did go on to paint three important Civil Rights Era paintings, most notably “The Problem We All Live With” based on Ruby Bridges’ integration of a New Orleans elementary school. But his lasting image of Thanksgiving continues to remind us of who had access to freedom in 1943.

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But Rockwell knew that not all Americans had the freedoms white Americans took for granted, even twenty years after his Four Freedoms paintings. This depiction of Ruby Bridges was published in Look magazine in 1964.

This past March, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Rockwell “Four Freedoms,” Smithsonian magazine had four artists reimagine the paintings for today’s America.  I was particularly interested in the revisioning of Freedom from Fear.  In the original painting, the parents of two small children watch them sleep.  The father is holding a folded newspaper with the words “bombing” and “horror” visible, but no immediate visible threat faces the family.  The revision shows a migrant family in a detention camp, posed exactly as Rockwell’s family is, but with the very clear visible threat of a barred window and guards with guns and dogs.  Rodriguez wanted to use his painting to push Americans to consider their view of migrants and refugees, an idea one reader, a retired immigration officer, called, “despicable” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/magazine/apr_col-discussion-180968411/).

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Images from Smithsonian magazine’s re-visioning of Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear (on the left) by Edel Rodriguez (right), once a Cuban refugee himself.

But Rodriguez is a migrant himself, having come from Cuba on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 at the age of nine.  He and his family came to the US with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the rest having been confiscated by the Cuban government.  Although Rodriguez says he was “warmly welcomed” upon their arrival in the US, he spent time in a Cuban detention camp before their departure.  And when he looks at America now, he says, “I’ve sometimes strained to differentiate my adoptive country from the dictatorship I fled. Violence at political rallies, friends watching what they say (and noting who is in the room when they say it) and a leader who picks on society’s weakest — this has felt all too familiar. I began making art about what I saw, to bear witness” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/opinions/2017/08/25/i-fled-despotism-in-cuba-now-im-fighting-it-in-america/?utm_term=.892f5588276f).  His controversial magazine covers depicting Donald Trump (in one, beheading the Statue of Liberty) have gained him notoriety.

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Like Rockwell’s and Rodriguez’s depictions of Freedom from Fear, Rodriguez’s illustration of Sonia Sotomayor as a child shows her sleeping. She has a smile on her face because she knows her mother, though poor and a migrant, can still offer her opportunity in America.

While Rodriguez’s art is designed to bear witness to the America he believes in, not all of it is controversial.  He also illustrates children’s books, and one in particular that I want to highlight combines his passion for social justice with his depiction of the immigrant struggle in America.  Jonah Winter’s Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx (Atheneum 2009) has a title which recalls Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—another immigrant family story published in 1943, the same year as Norman Rockwell’s paintings.  Winter’s story tells of a girl born in New York who did not have the same freedoms as those people in the Norman Rockwell paintings.  Winter talks about Sotomayor’s childhood economic poverty, but Rodriguez balances what could be a gloomy text with illustrations that show a little girl secure in the love of her mother.  Sonia looks more like the Norman Rockwell children in Freedom from Fear than the children in Rodriguez’s revision.  Sotomayor’s background of poverty made her a compassionate judge: “She had seen things most other judges had not.  People she’d grown up with had gone to jail.  People she’d grown up with were poor” (n.p.).  But she never would have become the passionate judge she became without her mother protecting her and working to ensure her freedom to be anything she wanted to be.  Just as Norman Rockwell’s Freedoms paintings contrasted America as it should be with his later Civil Rights paintings of America at its worst, Edel Rodriguez’s Rockwell revision and depiction of Sonia Sotomayor’s childhood shows the fear and promise of the American immigrant experience.  Both artists are asking Americans to choose the America that they want to embrace, and hoping that they choose love over fear.

Suffering (and Suffragetting) in Silence: British Colonial Rebels and Children’s Literature

Last week, I talked about the American midterm elections and the connection (or lack thereof) between white women, suffragettes, and a lack of concern for people of color and their issues.  This week I want to start with the same issue, but in Britain instead of America.

British women (at least the over-30s) got the vote in 1918, two years before American women.  The campaign for women’s suffrage was a brutal one in Britain; one account called the suffragettes “a large network of free-lance militants engaged in repeated acts of criminality” (“Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIknRGKCKZo).  If this phrase were applied to people of colour, rather than to white women, today, they would be labeled terrorists—and indeed, in their own time, many of the British suffragettes were called terrorists, and some supporters of women’s right to the vote distanced themselves from the movement because of the violence.  However, the suffragettes are now seen, 100 years on, as heroes and are celebrated in children’s books.

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MacDonald and Antrim’s suffragette book depicts the Edwardian movement as being made up of white women.

In many popular books and media for children, the image of the celebrated British suffragette is middle- or upper-class and white; examples of this include the popular Danger Zone series by Fiona MacDonald and David Antrim, Avoid Being a Suffragette! (Salariya 2008); and the BBC programme “Horrible Histories,” whose “Suffragettes Song” video includes only white women, and middle/upper class women as leaders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmUA6_6UJJU).  The song discusses the violence (“burned down churches, smashed up shops, attacked MPs”) but concludes with celebration (“Suffragettes, sing! We’ve done it, ding, ding! At last those men see you should treat us the same”).  Imagine if—even 100 years ago—women of colour were involved in burning down churches, smashing up shops and attacking MPs.  Imagine if—even 100 years ago—people of colour were not just looking for the right to vote, but for their independence from the British Empire.  Would they be celebrated in children’s books today like Emmeline Pankhurst or Emily Davison?

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Sophia Duleep Singh, pictured on the right, was an Indian princess, a suffragette–and a colonial rebel.

But of course there is no need to imagine, because there were people of colour at that time who were suffragettes.  There are many whose names we do not know, but one that we do know is Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian princess brought up in England who became a suffragette—significantly—after traveling to India and seeing the effect of colonialism on her people.  Singh, one of the many royal godchildren that Queen Victoria adopted after more or less stealing the thrones/countries of the children’s parents or grandparents, was brought up to a life of luxury.  But her parents, exiled from India to quell any hope that the Singh family would return to rule, were unhappy in their gilded cage; her father ran off with a mistress and her mother drank herself to death.  Sophia and her sisters, knowing nothing else, became society princesses in the Edwardian era.  Her trip to India, where she was recognized as the daughter of Ranjit Singh, the last Maharajah of the Punjab, showed her how much her people had lost in being colonized and ultimately dominated by the British.  After she returned to England, she became a militant suffragette, storming Parliament and attacking the Prime Minister’s car.  But until recently, she has been absent from most children’s books about suffragettes.

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David Roberts’ book puts “The Rebel Princess” front and centre–but as a suffragette concerned about her family, rather than her country.

Two recent books that include Singh are David Roberts’ Suffragette: The Battle for Equality (Two Hoots 2018), which pictures Singh (presumably) on the front cover as well as giving her a two-page spread inside, and Kira Cochrane’s Modern Women: 52 Pioneers (Frances Lincoln 2017).  Roberts keeps the focus of Singh’s transformation to radicalism on being “troubled” (36) by the way the British had treated her family, but Cochrane’s book specifically mentions Singh’s “loathing” for the British Empire after her visit to India.  For women of colour, suffrage was not just about the right to vote; it was about the right to represent themselves and be heard as people of subjugated nations.  For years, Singh’s story was lost to child readers, and those that do depict her often shy away from her anti-colonial attitudes.

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Rabindranath Tagore was once supported by British and Irish poets, including Yeats.

Another colonial rebel who has been—and still is—lost to child readers in Britain is a Nobel Prize winner and contemporary of Sophia Duleep Singh, Rabindranath Tagore.  In fact, in the year that Tagore won the Nobel Prize, 1913, he translated his children’s book The Crescent Moon, into English and dedicated to the man who nominated him, Thomas Sturge Moore.  The book, which is about the common everyday experiences of the child, is comparable to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  Indeed, both collections address rainy days, the seashore, fairyland, and paper boats.  Tagore’s “Paper Boats” speaks of how “Day by day I float my paper boats one by one down the running stream. /In big black letters I write my name on them and the name of the village where I live. /I hope that someone in some strange land will find them and know who I am” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6520/6520-h/6520-h.htm) while Stevenson’s “Where go the boats?” expresses a similar sentiment: “Away down the river,/ A hundred miles or more,/ Other little children/ Shall bring my boats ashore.”

Original illustrations from Tagore’s Crescent Moon–in this case by Surendranath Ganguli–recall similar illustrations of childhood in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (this one is by Maria Kirk from 1919):

How beneficial would it be to introduce children to these collections side-by-side and talk about the similarities and differences in both childhood and poetry in different parts of the world?  But Tagore is unknown to modern British children (and indeed, many British adults).  His Crescent Moon is not available in English editions for children, while A Child’s Garden of Verses has never been out of print.  Is this because the ideas are incomprehensible to readers? Hardly.  But after winning the Nobel Prize, Tagore became increasingly anti-imperial, and his one-time champions in the English-speaking world (who included the poet William Butler Yeats) soon decided “he no longer appeared to be the docile colonized Orientalist of their projection” (Mukherjee, “Thomas Sturge Moore and his Indian Friendships in London” 67).  In his 1918 Nationalism, Tagore complains that “at the beginning of the British rule in India our industries were suppressed, and since then we have not met with any real help or encouragement to enable us to make a stand against the monster commercial organizations of the world. The nations have decreed that we must remain purely an agricultural people, even forgetting the use of arms for all time to come. Thus India is being turned into so many predigested morsels of food ready to be swallowed at any moment by any nation which has even the most rudimentary set of teeth in its head” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40766/40766-h/40766-h.htm page 126).  Like Singh, it was Tagore’s nationalism and anti-imperialism that silenced him for British child readers.  Singh is creeping back into the history of the suffragette (though not necessarily anti-colonial) movement, but so far, Tagore has not been returned to his place in the history of children’s poetry.  The long arm of the British Empire continues to affect the way that British child readers experience their nation’s past, silencing those who dared to speak out against the Empire.